Why Do Stick Insects Sway?

Stick Insect Upside Down on Stem

Most stick insects cannot directly battle predators, so they have evolved certain actions to mitigate this handicap. Upon observation, the chances are that you have noticed your stick insect likes to occasionally sway. It is akin to them swaying slightly as if they were a twig in the breeze. For you, this may be cute, but it is actually an essential survival mechanism.

In the following paragraphs, I am going to discuss why stick insects sway and whether stick insects in captivity are different to those in the wild when it comes to swaying.

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Why Do Stick Insects Sway to Survive? 

Swaying is all about surviving for a stick insect. They sway in the breeze to appear like a twig blowing about in the breeze. It is all part of their defences to deter predators, and they do this by rocking backwards and forwards.

Let’s take a look at some of the different measures a stick insect will take to defend itself:

Step One – Stick insects use incredibly effective types of camouflage. Depending on the part of the world they originate and their natural environment, stick insects will camouflage themselves in colours like brown and green. Most of the time, this is more than enough to keep predators away from them.

Step Two – If a predator is nearby, a stick insect will sway in the breeze like a twig. They will still be camouflaged, but if a predator is still about then the stick insect will stop moving and start to rock backwards and forwards. This often convinces a predator that there is no prey there.

Step Three – If all else fails and it finds itself caught, a stick insect will disengage itself from the predator by detaching a leg. You already know that a stick insect can easily lose its legs. But did you know that a stick insect could basically jettison a leg to have a better chance of escaping to safety?

As you can see, swaying in the breeze is just one option a stick insect has to prevent predation.

green stick insect sitting on leaves in a tree

It’s Not Just Stick Insects That Sway

Stick insects are not unique when it comes to this type of behaviour though. As one study by X. Bian reveals, many insects display a similar mechanism for protecting themselves against predators.

It should be noted that the same study mentioned that not every species of stick insect will sway in the wind. For example, stick insects that are larger, or those that have spikes on their legs, will have other defensive options at their disposal. Indeed, when it comes to the larger species of stick insect, swaying in the breeze is not practical.

For example, the giant spiny stick insect is known by this name for the spines it has along its legs. This allows it to attack smaller predators, rather than it adopting a purely defensive stance.

Will Your Stick Insect Sway in the Breeze? 

You may be wondering why stick insects sway even though they are kept in captivity and there are no predators for them to have to deal with.

The main reason for this is that insects behave in exactly the same way, irrespective of whether they are captive or in the wild. Basically, captivity is not going to change anything insofar a stick insect is concerned. Or put another way, stick insects, unlike some other pet-type animals like cates or dogs, are unable to discern between being captive or still living in the wild.

So based on this, you will be seen as a predator from time to time, especially if you don’t handle them correctly. So if you see your stick insect swaying in its enclosure, then know that it is perfectly natural behaviour and it is happening because they assume that you’re a predator.

Note: Stick insects never lose their natural instincts, even if born in captivity.

How to Handle Your Stick Insect Correctly 

I mentioned that the way you handle your stick insects will determine exactly how they react to you. Understand that if they see a great shadow coming over the tank, or when you’re cleaning up their tank, they may see you as a natural predator. Don’t take it personally.

But this can make it more difficult for you to actually handle them. You can grab them (softly) under their thoraxes with two fingers, but they could still easily lose a leg if you get this wrong.

This is why you should always aim to coax the stick insect onto your hand to get the job done. This can be done with a fresh leaf and some patience.

Vietnamese Stick Insect
Vietnamese Stick Insect (Source: flickr.com/photos/zpyder)

But will this change the way your stick insects react to you in the long-term? It’s unlikely. However, what are you supposed to do if your stick insect has spines along its legs? This is a more complex issue because if you surprise your stick insect you will likely receive a pinch in return.

The trick with these stick insects is to ensure you stay away from those back legs. Yes, you can still use the coaxing method. But trying to pick them up directly means avoiding those legs. This is the reason that owning exotic stick insects like this isn’t something I recommend for novices.

Can You Make Your Stick Insects Feel More at Ease? 

So if you can’t stop them from feeling like a predator is coming for them from time to time, is there anything you can do about the swaying?

It’s not a problem if your stick insect sways. This is what all stick insects will do from time to time. But you can take steps to make your stick insects feel more at ease. For example, you could rearrange the tank so that they have a cool, dark place to hide when needed. Stick insects love anything that can help them hide. Some dead foliage or a few twigs will give your pets the tools required to do this.

Options like this are great for making sure that your stick insect can camouflage itself when you need to manage your stick insect tank.

Last Word – Observe Your Stick Insects 

So now that you know why stick insects sway, and that it is perfectly natural, it is time to observe it for yourself. One of the joys of owning stick insects is you do get to observe these intriguing behaviours.

The majority of stick insects prefer to move about at night, but when they do become active during the day, they’re more likely to adopt the swaying tactic. They are more vulnerable at this time so they’re more likely to employ it. But whenever you approach the tank, or you stick your hand in to provide them with more food, you might observe the swaying strategy live.


I am a content creator by profession but exotic animals are one of my great passions in life. Over the course of my adulthood, I have had the pleasure of looking after stick insects, terrapins, an Egyptian tortoise, giant African land snails, a crested gecko, a Chilean rose tarantula, a couple of curly-haired tarantulas, and a selection of millipedes, centipedes and worms!

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